“Cineaste” #6: Digigeddon, pt.1

“The Double Life of a Cinéaste”
Digital Armageddon Part 1 –
Preserving Celluloid in the Digital Age

Our columnist debates the industry’s conviction that complete digital conversion is a necessity

by Tyler Tharpe


“The Double Life of a Cinéaste” follows contributor Tyler Tharpe as he balances the business of running a drive-in theater in the Midwest with the long and arduous process of filmmaking.

What a great year at the drive-in so far! And, I need it.

As I’m sure most everyone knows by now, theaters are converting their 35mm projectors to digital. Most of the large chains have digital systems in place and, I believe, a little more than half of all movie screens in the United States have been converted according to a recent National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) report.

Most independent theaters such as the one I operate have not yet converted for the obvious reason that it is just way too expensive a process. A good used 35mm system can cost way less than $10,000, with maintenance adding little extra cost over a 30-40 year life span. On the low end, digital systems cost around $70,000 with an expected life of five years before upgrades and such are needed.

Earlier this year, a rumor claimed the studios were going to discontinue distributing 35mm film prints by the end of 2012. Recently, word spread that the film print cut-off date has been moved to the end of 2013, although comments on the drive-in owners’ chat group I belong to suggest January 2013 as “the end.” In any case, the longer it takes the better it will be for us independents who need to scrape up the money; hopefully, prices will come down on the necessary equipment.

As I watched the huge tent pole movies on my 75-foot-wide drive-in screen this summer – I usually book four per season but landed six this year: THE AVENGERS, MEN IN BLACK 3, MADAGASCAR 3, BRAVE, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES – I wondered how many of them were actually filmed on 35mm. Checking in with the Internet Movie Database, I found out SPIDER-MAN was the only one of the four live-action movies to be shot digitally.

Curiously, I had a hell of a time getting a perfect focus on SPIDER-MAN as well as BRAVE so I wonder if their digital origins are culprit. Digital simply cannot reproduce with the clarity and resolution of 35mm film stock, and it will be several more years before we see any advancement coming close.

Unfortunately, this rush to go digital is delaying my own filmmaking process because I am forced to reserve every bit of profit I make to put towards converting the drive-in. Anyone reading my previous “Cinéaste” columns knows I am a film diehard. I choose to shoot my projects on film but it costs money; the irony is this looming switchover may force me to shoot my next film on digital for cost reasons.

Film did just fine for more than 100 years and it’s still a superior shooting medium, but it comes down to the fact that it is tons cheaper for a studio to deliver a film on a digital hard drive. The average cost of a 35mm film print is $1,500. The cost of dumping the same film to a hard drive is $150. It’s definitely a matter of time before film goes away altogether.

Film director Christopher Nolan shot THE DARK KNIGHT RISES completely on film, switching to the IMAX large-size format for his action sequences. Nolan is a film diehard as well, so much so that he champions film as a delivery choice for exhibition as well as production. During a preview of the feature’s first six minutes last December in Universal City, Nolan pitched an audience including the likes of Michael Bay, Bryan Singer, Jon Favreau, Eli Roth, Duncan Jones, and Stephen Daldry on saving the medium.

Amidst the army of digital supporters there are people, including film historian Eric Grayson in nearby Indianapolis, who work hard to archive 35mm classics. I asked Grayson why it is important to preserve 35 as opposed to relying on digital.

“There’s a problem with digital technology,” says Grayson. “It’s moving forward so fast that things are being left in the dust. Remember floppy discs? Before that it was tape drives. Those are going away at a ridiculous rate. We may have perfectly good media that can’t be played in anything for years to come.

“There’s a more important problem than that,” he adds. “We don’t know how this stuff lasts in storage. We know how film lasts in storage, and we know how to store it well to maximize its life. I have film prints as old as 1926 and 1929 that are still fine and can be played in modern projectors. I have compact discs from 1986 that have oxidized and are no longer playable.”

Given the fluxing dates as to when the studios may cease to issue 35mm film prints, I asked Grayson how much longer he thinks Hollywood will actually distribute the old-fashioned way. “It’s hard to say. I can go by history, though,” he ruminates. “The last time a huge change was made was in the 1990s when they switched to cyan sound over the black sound. [Meaning, the switch from magnetic or optical soundtracks to digital soundtracks on film prints. – ed.] That took 15 years to go through. The change there was fairly minimal – it requires only a new sound reader – but there was a lot of complaining about it.

“On the other hand, when sound came in during the late 1920s, you had almost no theaters running sound in 1928 but nearly all of them running it by 1930. I think the world is a different place now, though,” states Grayson. “In 1928, movies were hugely profitable and the public was really interested in talking films. In 2012, the best movie theaters are marginally profitable and most patrons don’t really care or notice the difference between film and digital. I don’t think it will be driven by the market but by the industry … I keep remembering that Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was a world-class icon from the 1920s to 1990s, but today they’re considering turning it into a disco. That’s just how different the world is today!”

Grayson owns a ton of great classics on 35mm. I’ve run a few of his prints at my drive-in, including the B-movie THE WASP WOMAN produced and directed by Roger Corman. I’m also considering running his print of REAR WINDOW, a huge classic I know will pull in some patrons. If I ever wanted to hold a James Bond festival, he has all of the Sean Connery Bonds in his basement vault. (Although, I can’t remember if he also has NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN which may not count as a true Bond film; I love talking to Grayson about its wild history!) That being said, one particular question popped into my head during the interview…

Has Grayson seen anything in the last five years even worth archiving, that people will look back on years from now and label it a classic? “I think that’s not a great way to look at things,” he responds. “Even the worst film has some archival value. I’ve seen a few made in the last few years that I thought were interesting and well-made [including] most of the Pixar films [and] INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. I think it’s sad to say that we should preserve and archive only the good films. We’re not ever sure what will be historically interesting.

“Let me give you an example of what I mean,” Grayson continues. “I’m working on a preservation of a 1929 serial that’s really horrible. The acting, the sets, the special effects, the story [are] all really fifth-rate. Why would anyone care about this? Well, it’s the first sound serial ever and it’s a rare early appearance by Boris Karloff, before he rocketed to fame as the Frankenstein monster. It’s fascinating to watch the poor actors dive for the one crude microphone they have in the center of the set to deliver their lines, and then leap backward so the next poor sap has a chance.”

In one of my previous “Cinéaste” columns, I mentioned how excruciating it is to sit and listen to any of the TRANSFORMERS films – especially that dialogue – for days on end at my drive-in. If someone gave me a print of any of these films as a gift, I’d heave it into the dumpster behind the concession stand. But Grayson states, “I don’t think that the TRANSFORMERS epics will ever be considered great films, but we should save them anyway because we just don’t know how the world will change in 50 years. I’d love to see Lon Chaney’s LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT from 1927 but, since no one cared to run off a preservation print, I can’t. Was it any good? Probably not, but it’s one of the most famous of lost films and it’s sad that it’s gone today. Perhaps some Shia LaBeouf biographer will want to see TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN someday, and I hope that a copy is around for him to see.”

Like ‘em or not, I’d be stupid not to run the next TRANSFORMERS when it arrives the summer of 2014 for it will be huge. TRANSFORMERS is this generation’s STAR WARS and they will be the ones looking back 20 to 30 years from now on these movies as classics. The question is, will they be releasing TRANSFORMERS 4 on 35mm film in 2014? If I had to take a wild guess, I would say probably not. It pains me to admit the Digital Armageddon is taking hold. Cinephiles must prepare for the inevitable.

In “Digital Armageddon Part 2,” I’ll talk with my director of photography Tony Hettinger about how we’re going to survive shooting High Definition … a loathsome notion indeed for two diehard celluloid cineastes.


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Tyler Tharpe is an Indianapolis resident who has a B.A. in Telecommunications with an emphasis on film from Ball State University. He is currently an independent filmmaker and drive-in theater owner/operator who can be reached at tylertharpe [at] yahoo [dot] com.

Eric Grayson is a film historian and preservationist who lives in Indianapolis. He publishes a Weblog under the pseudonym “Dr. Film.”

REFERENCE: Alimurung, Gendy. “Movie Studios Are Forcing Hollywood to Abandon 35mm Film. But the Consequences of Going Digital Are Vast, and Troubling.” The L.A. Times, April 12, 2012. (Accessed July 25, 2012.)

“The Double Life of a Cinéaste” no. 6 © 2012 Tyler Tharpe.

CUBlog edit © 2012 Jason Pankoke

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